Slow Start? That's not the Phillies' biggest problem
The Phillies are 1-3 after their first four games. It's actually the same place they stood this time in 2009, a year when they were coming off a World Series championship and on the way to a second straight World Series appearance.
In a professional sports city that's as parochial as Philadelphia, it's also easy to lose sight of what's going on around the rest of the league.
The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, who populate the top three, highest payroll teams in baseball with the Phillies, are also 1-3. Two other National League potential playoff teams are off to similar slow starts: the San Francisco Giants are 1-3, the Atlanta Braves are 0-4.
As my buddy David Hale pointed out this morning, the eight teams that would play in the postseason in 2011 were a combined 16-20 at this point last year, including Tampa Bay (0-4), Detroit (1-3), Milwaukee (1-4) and Arizona (1-3).
Panic? Not just yet. When people ask for the appropriate time to hit that panic button, I'd say you can give it at least another month.
Just last year the Detroit Tigers were over .500 for just three days in the season's first month. They were 12-17 on May 2.
Detroit, which didn't climb over .500 for good until May 30, went on to win 95 games.
And now that we have you feeling better about the Phillies' current plight....
I was catching up on some reading this morning with the newspaper waiting on my doorstep upon returning home from Pittsburgh, the New York Times. Inside the sports section, Tyler Kepner had an interesting story on the San Francisco Giants' recent signing of Matt Cain.
The Giants signed Matt Cain to a five-year, $112.5 million extension before Opening Day. Cain, like Cole Hamels, had been scheduled to hit the open market as a free agent at the end of the season.
Within the Cain story, Giants' president and chief executive officer Larry Baer was asked whether the Cain deal would preclude the Giants from also keeping two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, who can become a free agent after next season.
"It does not,” Baer told the New York Times. “I think we’re kind of rare. We think we have the ability, with some selective trades and smart signings, to populate the club with a preponderance of homegrown guys, which is important.”
It's difficult to read about Baer's comments about Cain, Lincecum and the Giants and not think about the similarly pitching-rich Phillies and their own situation with Hamels.
The Phils undoubtedly want to re-sign Cole Hamels. Cole Hamels wants to remain with the Phillies.
It's unclear if Hamels' camp would sign a deal below market value. You can bet he could get a Johan Santana-type deal - six-years, $137.5 million - as a free agent.
Both Phils' team president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., however, have said they can afford to have three pitchers with annual, $20 million contracts. So having the money doesn't appear to be a problem.
The problem is how you spread that money around, especially with a payroll already up against the luxury tax that includes aging, injury-prone position players. Ryan Howard ($105 million), Chase Utley ($15 million) and Jimmy Rollins ($27 million), three players who have spent a significant amount of time on the DL in the last three years, are owed a combined $147 million after the 2012 season.
And of the $112.3 million the Phils already have committed to the 2013 payroll, $45 million that that is owed to two pitchers, Cliff Lee ($25 million) and Roy Halladay ($20 million). If the Phils re-sign Hamels, it's not a stretch to turn that to $65 million of $132.3 million committed to three starting pitchers in 2013.
Having three of baseball's best pitchers is all well and good, and as Amaro has said numerous times, "Pitching rules the day." But as you may have noticed, the Phils are currently having trouble scoring runs, and even when Howard and Utley return, the lineup is not getting any younger, so you can't expect the offense as whole will ever return to its 2007-2009 form.
But back to the Giants...
Within the New York Times' story, Baer says the Giants do have the flexibility to allot a large portion of the team's salary to its two, All-Star starting pitchers because of an influx of other, cheaper, homegrown talent.
As the Times' story pointed out, the Giants started two promising young players on Opening Day in first baseman Brandon Belt and shortstop Brandon Crawford (each will make less than $500,000 this season). The Giants also have top outfield prospect Gary Brown not too far away from the big leagues.
You can afford to pay two pitchers close to $50 million annually when you have other, productive players on the roster making less than $1 million annually. It's a necessary balancing act for major league teams.
“You’ve got to create cycles where, as some guys get into free-agent status, you can support them with other guys in their early years,” Baer told the New York Times.
And therein lies the biggest problem with the Phillies, an issue much larger than a 1-3 record through the season's first four games: the Phils do not have the luxury of the same influx of major league-ready, young, cheap rookies ready to take over for aging veterans to help balance to payroll budget.
Domonic Brown was supposed to lead that new wave.
But instead of seeing Brown replace Jayson Werth a year ago, the Phils first had to turn to an inexpensive-but-not-capable option in Ben Francisco before giving in and acquiring another high-payroll player in Hunter Pence. Instead of seeing Brown replace Raul Ibanez this year, the Phils signed a fringe starter in Laynce Nix, mostly because he was an inexpensive option that could provide a left-handed hitting insurance option to John Mayberry Jr.
Similarly, the Phils' chose to re-sign Rollins to a long-term, hefty contract ($38 million guaranteed) in part because they didn't feel Freddy Galvis was a major-league ready option. They also doled out $50 million to closer Jonathan Papelbon, which wouldn't be necessary if you had a homegrown, major league-ready, back-of-the-bullpen arm ready to take over for Ryan Madson.
After watching Monday's home opener, with the offense continuing to struggle and Cole Hamels becoming a victim once again of low run support, you can't help but think about how those two forces could continue to work against each other in the future.
The Phils want to bring back Hamels. But can they afford to, with an offense sorely in need of healthy, capable and productive players?